Your sentiments can be easily misinterpreted in e-mails and instant messages, so why read text when you could be reading facial expressions? Now that broadband Internet connections are becoming widely available, videoconferencing is becoming a handy and effective way to communicate long-distance with friends and colleagues. We looked at three programs: ClearPhone, CUseeMe, and iSpQ VideoChat 4.01.
None of these will work unless you start with an external microphone and a fast Internet connection, as well as a Web cam or video camera (including FireWire and USB models).
Installation was smooth for all the products except CUseeMe, which consistently crashed the machines we installed it on. Fortunately, a hard reboot resolved the problem. Similarly, setup was very straightforward for all the applications except CUseeMe, which was less intuitive than the others. Fortunately, CUseeME's CD version comes with a helpful 200-page user manual. ClearPhone stood apart from the others as the easiest program to set up: it provides a handy audio check feature to confirm that your dialup modem or DSL settings are correct before you make a call.
Calling Occupants of Internet Chat
Placing a call is slightly different in each application, but you have the same basic options in all of them: you can either enter a chat room and simply talk to people at random, or you can enter the IP address of a specific user and establish a direct connection with him or her. The latter option is especially convenient for both professional and personal situations in which you don't want outsiders disrupting your private call. However, it does require that both parties run the same software.
In addition, all the products allow you to conference with a Windows machine from your Mac. With ClearPhone, the only requirement is that the Windows user must download and install Microsoft NetMeeting. With iSpQ VideoChat, you can conference with those running either the Windows version or a standards-compliant program such as NetMeeting. With CUseeMe, the Windows user must run the Windows version of the software.
iSpQ VideoChat looks like a traditional chat room: its main window displays usernames alongside comments about the user. It allows you to search for users in its Theme Rooms, which are organized by topics such as Sports. However, it hosts theme rooms with adult content, but doesn't provide the ability to block access to that content. (Of the three products we tested, iSpQ is the only one to provide a forum for adult content.)
ClearPhone uses a simple and intuitive floating palette to navigate. You can switch back and forth between two versions of the palette. The simple version displays only two options: enter a pub (ClearPhone's term for chat rooms), or make a direct IP-to-IP connection. In contrast, the advanced version displays about a dozen options, including the ability to modify your profile or settings.
CUseeMe's interface resembles that of a Rolodex: each file contains a picture and text, plus a button that you click on to call the displayed user. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as convenient as a real-life Rolodex: clicking your way through user file after user file can become tiresome. Chances are, you'll be forced to rely on the search function instead.
Although picture quality depends largely on the camera you use, we noticed that the output from CUseeMe was choppier than the others.
A Low Budget Picture
The products we tested range in price from free to $39.99 per year. ClearPhone comes in a free, full-featured 15-day trial version; after that, it costs $39.99 for 18 months and $39.99 per year after that. When the trial version expires, you lose the option of direct IP-to-IP networking, but none of the other features. But, you can still get IP-to-IP networking functionality by meeting in a chat room and simply turning on the feature that locks out other users.